• Mick Stevens
  • The SeinfeldNew Yorker cartoon”: “I wish I was taller.”

I’m thinking that maybe the New Yorker‘s Cartoon Caption Contest has it backwards. “Each week, we provide a cartoon in need of a caption,” the instructions begin. Too many weeks, the captions are in need of a cartoon.

For the contest to work, the art should be just begging to have something smart written under it. Every few weeks the contest works. But most of the cartoons sit there stupidly, the cartoonist having tossed in some incongruity passing for wit, or at least the kernel of wit. The August 26 New Yorker just came in the mail, and I turned to page 74 to see if this was one of the good weeks. It’s one of the worst. In “This Week’s Contest,” some Incredible Hulk type in a yoga studio is slamming a bald guy into a wall.

Go for it. Make that funny.

Under a drawing from an earlier week are “The Finalists.” The cartoon is an excellent example of the perfunctory incongruity. We have a couple at a table for two in a nice restaurant. A wandering musician stands before them. But it’s not a fiddle he’s holding; it’s a tuba. The best New Yorker readers could do with that:

“My name is Gary, and I’ll be annoying you.”

“Something romantic?”

“Compliments of your ex.”

The only excuse that can be made for such limp, obvious submissions is that they had nothing to inspire them.

But rock bottom is the issue’s “Winning Caption.” A golfer swings open a door into an operating room, startling the masked doctors and nurses. And after the entries had poured in, and had been winnowed down by the magazine’s crack winnowing staff, and then the nation had voted for its favorite, the winner was:

“How’s my wife doing?”

Which I believe is a feeble variant—if even that—on a joke about golfers and wives that’s been around since the game began in Scotland. At the New Yorker, where it is vital to maintain the illusion that its readership is incredibly special and incredibly sparking, this should be a fall-on-your-sword moment. Resignations alone would not suffice, though scrubbing the Cartoon Caption Contest before more harm is done would make a good start.